‘Picture’ of Shakespeare remains surprisingly blurred

Frank Neufeld // Western News

Andres Villar is a part-time lecturer in the Department of Visual Arts

Of all the images connected to Shakespeare and his work, perhaps none has elicited more fascination and frustration than the ostensible portraits of the author himself. Several representations of Shakespeare have become mainstays of popular culture, but did he actually sit for any of these portraits that inspire the depictions we encounter here, there, and everywhere?

The question has bedeviled art historians for a long time now, and the jury is still out on whether any of the visages that appear on everything from posters to LEGO figures are based on accurate visual representations of the playwright.

The fact no uncontested likeness of Shakespeare has been found might bewilder many of his fans. However, even a cursory Internet search on the topic will uncover a long history of misattribution, deceit and plain wishful thinking. There are literally dozens of portraits that at one time or another have been considered true depictions of Shakespeare.

Today, less than a handful of these remain serious contenders for such a distinction: the so-called Chandos portrait (named after a former owner); the Droeshout engraving (created by Martin Droeshout); and a sculptural bust in the Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon (carved by the Johnson – or Janssen – studio in London). The histories of these and other purported Shakespeare portraits are charted in journalist Stephanie Nolen’s Shakespeare’s Face (2002) and Shakespeare scholar Katherine Duncan-Jones’s Portraits of Shakespeare (2015). Both authors show that the many attempts to find ‘true’ images of the playwright have been coloured by the preconceptions such relic hunters brought to their searches.

Nevertheless, the hunt for Shakespeare’s true likeness continues because, as art historians acquainted with English Renaissance art well know, portraiture was the most important painting genre during this period. Many 16- and 17-century portraits of could-be Shakespeares are probably sitting in attics, waiting to lure those on a quest for the ‘real thing.’

And yet with so many candidates to choose from, an authentic image of Shakespeare remains elusive.

This might seem surprising, particularly since several likenesses of known personalities from that time have become so iconic, such as the highly detailed – to contemporary eyes almost photographic – faces of Henry VIII, Thomas More and other members of the English aristocracy painted by the northern European painter Hans Holbein the Younger (ca. 1497-1543). In many of Holbein’s portraits, which were created just a few decades before Shakespeare’s birth, the sitters stare directly at the viewer and look self-assured in a manner that seems modern and familiar, even if their attire appears alien. We can see this in Holbein’s somewhat enigmatic 1533 painting The Ambassadors, which also includes a famous anamorphic, or distorted, skull. Two men, Jean de Dinteville and George de Selve, stand in front of a table with objects that allude to their humanist education, and both look out of the painting to meet the viewer’s gaze. In an age that scholar Stephen Greenblatt has famously referred to as one of “self-fashioning,” portrait painting was a tool used by people such as de Dinteville and de Selve to do just that.

After Holbein’s death, the English aristocracy’s insatiable demand for portraits was filled by English painters such as Nicholas Hilliard (ca. 1547–1619) and George Gower (ca. 1540-1596), and by artists from continental Europe, such as Lucas de Heere (1534-1584), Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder (ca. 1520–1590), and the latter’s son, Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (ca. 1561-1636). Nevertheless, Holbein’s work continued to exert a powerful influence on artists who followed in his wake. Hilliard, one of the most important Elizabethan portrait painters active during Shakespeare’s lifetime, acknowledged his debt to Holbein, although Hilliard’s style veered more towards the Gothic or neo-medieval manner evident in his Young Man Among the Roses (ca. 1585-1595).

A strong middle class had created a burgeoning market for portraits in early-Renaissance Flanders and the Netherlands, and by the end of the 16th century a non-aristocratic market for portraits was also emerging in England. Hilliard’s clientele shared the stage with members of a rising class that also used portraits to re-fashion themselves, although within the strict limits of socially appointed roles reinforced by legal norms, such as the sumptuary laws that determined who could wear what.

This surge of ‘citizen portraits,’ as Tarnya Cooper has called such commissions in her eponymous book on the subject, was driven by people such as merchants, lawyers, and – when they could afford it – artists and writers. Portraits, however, remained expensive to commission. Furthermore, because of the English obsession with rank, the social status of poets, authors, and playwrights was generally low. Shakespeare lived during a period when the notion of the artist-as-intellectual, which had been advocated by Italian humanists since at least the 15th century, was only beginning to acquire currency in England.

Portraits of writers and artists, however, do exist, such as those of the poet John Donne (1572-1631), the playwright Ben Jonson (1572-1637) and the actor Richard Burbage (1567-1619), the latter of whom was well-known in his time and played important roles in Shakespeare’s plays.

Could one or more of the artists who were plying their trade as portrait painters have painted Shakespeare’s portrait? Is there, hiding in a house somewhere around Stratford-upon-Avon, an as-yet-undiscovered portrait of Shakespeare that can be identified with certainty?

It is possible, but highly unlikely, suggests Duncan-Jones, since Shakespeare’s notoriety would have drawn such an object into the limelight a long time ago.

In our age of the selfie, when the technology in many people’s pockets makes the capturing of a likeness a trivial event, and when we have become used to the faces of celebrities confronting us in the supermarket checkout line, it seems hard to believe that there could be no portrait of Shakespeare. Yet, perhaps it is better that the representations of the playwright continue to defy our need for certainty and consistency, and that the visual ‘picture’ of Shakespeare recapitulates, as an afterimage, the complexity of the texts associated with his name.

Andrés Villar is a part-time lecturer in the Department of Visual Arts.